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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Cambodia's soldiers start new lives as civilians

Cambodia's soldiers start new lives as civilians

 

Sovan (center), a paratroop officer, awaits his demobilization along with other soldiers, sailors, airmen and women at the Kampong Chhnang discharge centre October 18.

Thirty-two year old Kan Chan Tara is standing in line waiting to receive his health

certificate from the screening team at Chray Bak primary school in Kampong Chhnang.

He has put aside his soldier's uniform of trousers and long-sleeved shirt for the

last time, and is wearing only his blue krama around his waist.

 

Chan Tara is one of 408 soldiers who left the army October 18 in Kampong Chhnang

in a renewed wave of demobilization that will see 30,000 retired by next year. However,

life is not easy for many of them: health problems are common, and there is widespread

uncertainty about what sort of a future awaits them as civilians.

Chan Tara is depressed: he has suffered from incontinence since 1999 and is in generally

poor health. He thinks the future is bleak.

"I don't think I will survive for long," he says sadly. "I have lost

all hope and feel very disappointed with my life." For a while he was in Preah

Ketmelea Hospital in Phnom Penh. Later he was sent home to live with his wife and

two small children, but is unable to help her with anything.

"I can't help my wife with planting rice or do any work to support my family.

I only sit around and wait for my wife to bring me food," he says.

Chray Bak primary school lies about 75 kilometers northwest of Phnom Penh. It was

the scene of a ceremony marking the beginning of the renewed demobilization effort.

Among the attendees were Prime Minister Hun Sen, both co-ministers of defense, Tea

Banh and Prince Norodom Sirirath, foreign diplomats and government officials.

Four hundred soldiers were retired that day in Kampong Chhnang, as were more than

800 in Kampong Speu and Kampong Cham provinces. They are the first of an estimated

15,000 who will leave the forces this year, with a similar number set to leave next

year. A pilot demobilization project, which saw 1,500 soldiers go, led the way, but

was hampered by a lack of donor funding.

Svay Sitha, undersecretary of state in the Council of Ministers and general secretary

of the demobilization council, says this phase will last 80 days and will finish

December 26.

Each demobilized soldier received $240 in cash, a package of food and household goods

- including 150 kg of rice, cooking oil, salt, and canned fish - and was given the

choice of a motorcycle and sewing machine, a house or a water pump, each worth around

$600. Some were concerned that they have not yet received their choice.

Commander Chan Samnang, seated in his military uniform at the front row, says he

will go to Battambang and become a fisherman. He has selected a motorbike and a sewing

machine as his leaving gifts.

"The motorbike is for my children to take the fish to sell at the market. The

sewing machine is for my wife to open a small tailor's shop in the village. But I

don't know when I will get them," he says.

Samnang has been a soldier for most of his life. He is glad at the opportunity of

returning to civilian life and feels the country will progress faster if there are

fewer troops on the country's payroll.

"I am not disappointed at being retired. I really want to see our country develop,"

he says. "And I am tired of being a soldier."

Samnang is luckier than many - he owns a plot of land in Korh Krolor village and

hopes that the combination of farming and fishing will give him a good lifestyle.

He is confident his family will thrive.

"I hope 100 percent that my family will be fine. When I was a soldier I had

no time to help them, because I was always busy with my duties."

A soldier and family man waits for his last pay.

However, not all the soldiers are as fortunate. Cheng comes from Takeo province and

does not know whether to be happy or sad now that he is a civilian.

"I have been a soldier for 20 years," he says. "I think it will prove

difficult living as a civilian, because I have never had to live by myself. I have

many children, but no land. I cannot guarantee that I will survive. I have to try

first."

Around 80 percent of the 15,000 soldiers in this first wave of demobilization are

either chronically ill, disabled or elderly. Um Saroeun, who joined the navy in 1984

is one. Permanent injuries from bullet wounds mean that he can no longer lift heavy

objects. He will try to repair bicycles to generate money for his family.

Saroeun says his injuries also prevent him from walking properly. He too has no land

and says the money provided by the government is insufficient to change that.

He is also concerned that he will lose the free hospital treatment that he has received

until now. As part of the demobilization process each soldier was given a health

document which they are to take to their nearest health clinic when they need treatment.

Saroeun says he has not heard of this.

 

Demobilizing 30,000 soldiers is not easy and not cheap - the cost of this project

is budgeted at $42 million. Around $7 million of this will come from the Royal Government

of Cambodia, while the World Bank has loaned $18.4 million. The Japanese government

is giving $10 million, and the Swedish and Dutch governments will donate $2 million

each, as will the World Food Program.

The World Bank's project analysis estimates the government will save at least $10

million a year in salary and food costs alone. The Bank admits these estimates are

conservative as they do not include the cost of providing housing, clothing, arms

and ammunition and recurrent maintenance costs.

The financial results should see the proportion of defense spending decrease, which

will release more funds for poverty reduction programs that can focus on improving

social services and economic opportunity.

Another body assisting the government is the International Organization for Migration

(IOM), which has provided technical support in collaboration with the Ministry of

Defense and the Ministry of Health.

Dr Jelena Cmiljanic, project officer in charge of general health assessment, says

the goal of medical screening is not only to assess soldiers' medical conditions,

but also to prepare material and information for their future health care and develop

a program to analyze their mental and physical health.

Dr Cmiljanic says that the health certificate will prove a useful follow up in assessing

the health and rehabilitation needs of former soldiers. The certificate will also

help the local health centers understand their problems.

Maria Nenette A. Motus, IOM's chief of mission in Cambodia, says that preliminary

reports of the range of medical conditions seen in Kampong Cham were as expected:

several soldiers disabled by bullets, explosions, landmine injuries, and chronic

illnesses such as hypertension, gastrointestinal conditions, sexually transmitted

diseases and diabetes. In addition some soldiers were found to have TB while others

have a history of malaria.

Motus says that treatment for STDs was provided at the demobilization center. Other

treatment was given to those suffering urinary tract infections, respiratory tract

infections, and intestinal parasitism. Education sessions, where the veterans were

given condoms, were also held detailing the risks of HIV/AIDS and other STDs.

Dr Sok Po, the coordinator of the Kampong Chhnang health screening team, says that

his team tested soldiers for 22 different diseases. HIV was not one of those included,

he explains, as it is too expensive and would require follow-up counseling. However,

he suspects that at least some of the veterans are HIV positive.

A.P. Som Loeung wears his uniform, with wings, for the last time.

Another area of concern is the mental health of some veterans. Motus says that these

include depression, anxiety and post traumatic stress disorder. The first two, she

says, normally relate to concerns over how they will adjust to civilian life. Some

suffer from mental illnesses sustained when they were fighting. Dr Cmiljanic says

that around 40 of the 408 demobilized soldiers in Kampong Chhnang are suffering from

mental illness.

Back at the demobilization center in Kampong Chhnang, Huot Sovan Eng, a female soldier

from Kandal province, is waiting with her youngest child. She joined the army nine

years ago, has three children, and like Saroeun has no land.

The money she was given will allow her to buy enough wood to build a house and she

will try to beg some land from her relatives when she gets home.

"The biggest problem is that I don't have land to farm," she says as she

leaves the discharge center. A waiting truck will take her back to Kandal province,

but the problems won't end there. "I don't know whether or not my relatives

will give me a piece of land."

Other veterans seem positively relieved to be going. Sixty-seven-year-old Som Loeung

is immaculately turned out, his paratrooper wings pinned on the right panel of his

dark-green shirt and two medals on the left. His red beret is folded neatly beneath

his epaulette.

"I have been a soldier since 1970, but during Pol Pot's time I did not fight,"

he says. "It is enough now - I want to stop because I cannot serve any longer.

It is better that I go back home and look after my grandchildren."

 

Aged, infirm targeted

 

Health statistics from the current crop of demobilized soldiers are not yet available,

but figures do exist for the 1,500 retired in last year's pilot program.

The World Bank report found that 1,107 soldiers (74 percent) suffered from medical

conditions that required further examination or treatment.

Among the most common medical conditions were: eye problems (27 percent), gastritis

(22), amputation (19), respiratory problems (15 ), urinary tract infection (14),

post-traumatic stress caused by blast and bullet injuries (11), and hypertension

(6).

In addition, nine of the 409 soldiers tested for malaria had contracted it. The

tests also found that 50 soldiers (3 percent) had STDs. Finally a mental health assessment

on 433 soldiers selected at random found that 37 percent reported subjective emotional

distress, including symptoms of depression, anxiety, and post traumatic stress disorder.

The report also listed World Bank figures that showed 15,551 irregular soldiers

- ghost soldiers - were removed from the army's register, as were around 9,000 widows,

whose names were placed with appropriate ministries.

These removals left 131,227 soldiers officially serving in the armed forces. The

Bank estimates that 11 percent of these are in category 2 - disabled, chronically

ill or over 55 years old - and are considered a priority for demobilization.

The survey also found that between 65-75 percent of category 2 soldiers or their

spouses are already engaged in farming activity and have access to land. However,

many of these do not have secure rights to the land, while others require extra land

to adequately support their families.

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